It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m chugging coffee, walking through the long avenues that separate the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The seasoned and savvy New York based rapper and vocalist Salomon Faye texts me saying he’ll be on the roof of the Cypher League Dojo. When I ascend the stairs and open the rooftop doorway, Salomon Faye is shirtless and meditating in the sun, palms pressed together and eyes shut against the world. I walk a few feet and hobble over a few shin-level metal beams, but he still doesn’t break that cerebral connection; his frequent musical collaborator Enasni Leber is dangling from the roof of the adjacent building. It’s not until I announce myself, in an admittedly awkward-stoned way, that we start talking.
Indie Current: Tell me a little about where you grew up.
Salomon Faye: I grew up in Harlem. I was born in Paris but grew up in Harlem.
IC: How long were you in Paris before you left?
SF: I moved here when I was like three years old.
IC: What were your parents doing in Paris?
SF: My mom was pursuing her music career, doing some modeling. My father was there because he was from Africa. He was born in Senegal, so he was there doing music things and—to my understanding—fucking with European woman to get citizenship and shit like that.
IC: What kind of music did he make?
SF: African music. He was a bad ass drummer. Beast. His name is Babacar Faye.
IC: What about your mom, what kind of music did she make?
SF: She was into funk. She was in a big funk band.
IC: So you were there for like three years, do you speak French?
SF: Un peu, you know. Paris didn’t shape me much. It’s just where I started. It reflects this natural sense of culture and expansion past the realms of New York and Harlem, because I’ve been back and I’ve vibed with people over there. I have a whole community of friends that do shit over there, like Cool Connection, Jazzy Bazz, most of my producers are from Paris. Most of the producers I work with are Paris-based.
IC: Where did you go to high school?
SF: I went to like six different high schools, man. Every year was like a new school, sometimes two schools in one year. The first high school went to after my last year of middle school was home schooling, that’s like the only reason I got into a good, private high school. It’s because of that transition. They had this unique way of teaching. It wasn’t normal. It’s was really artsy and shit.
IC: Is that where you graduated from?
SF: Nah, I didn’t graduate high school. I got kicked out of that school my first year. That’s where I started, ninth grade. And then I went to Le Salle Academy, it was like a Catholic school. Leadership for Public Service was a public school, a little badder. You know the difference between public and private schools. I ended up getting arrested when I was there and went to another school for a couple of months. Then I went to boarding school; left that.
IC: Where did you go to boarding school?
SF: It’s in Upstate New York. It’s called Trinity Poly. It was dope. I left there and came back here to James Baldwin for the last two years of my high school. That’s where I met Enasni Leber, who I started THEiLLUZiON with about three years ago.
Enasni Leber: It was 2011. You were 18 and I was 17.
SF: That sums up the high school experience.
IC: Did you ever think about pursuing–
SF: College and shit?
IC: Not even college, but just any form of education after all that?
SF: PSSSHH! Yeah, actually! I always saw myself going to college, until like my last year of high school. I wanted to go to Berkley College of Music. I saw that. College was not even a question, not even a question of debate. Yeah. But my last year or so of high school, my lack of focus and commitment in school and really seeing the activity outside of school regarding music—we were affiliated and saw them at their moment of transition from being where we are now to going to the level that they are now. That really painted a vivid understanding of how close (snaps his finger) this reality was, as opposed to how we might’ve seen it as this far, distant thing. It was like, wow. You could touch that! It’s right there. Matter of fact, I just touched it. I was just with these niggas and now they’re on TV. It dissolved that illusion of this being some far-fetched thing. I felt like… So I don’t have to go to school for this. I don’t have to be in school right now. And that’s when the college shit was pretty much out the window. I just dived into the shit headfirst. I didn’t even stay in high school to finish that, because I wasn’t focused and would’ve had to do another year because of my lack of focus. Like my grades and shit. I don’t gotta convince myself I’m smart or anything like that. Let’s go, let’s make this shit happen.
IC: How do your parents feel about where you are right now?
SF: They love it. My mom’s involved. My father’s in Paris. He supports from a distance. It was tough at first as far as getting approval. You know, there was disapproval. Go to school. Get a GED. Yeah, but there’s just no need for that in the direction that I want to go and I’m going to go with my life. Maybe if I planned on studying something, I just didn’t see the point. I knew what I was going to do.
IC: Is that your mom in that picture, the artwork for “Self Reflection”?
SF: Yeah, with the baby and the—yeah.
IC: How do you think you’ve grown since that first track, because that was almost two years ago?
SF: I understand the type of shit that I was getting at. It’s like a fully understand it. Me writing those things in “Self Reflection” was like a desire to get on that level of understanding of the philosophy of—what is it. (Breaks out into a verse) “I sold next flight/ Chillin like a villain til my next life/ I been living somewhere different than this Hell right/ And the kush and the L kind of smell like forests.” So that song is just me juggling different concepts from different things I’ve learned in exploring Eastern philosophy and identifying with different aspects of how these things referred to the world—the insight they provided. I chose different things that I related to and I interpreted them with my expression. And now it’s like I fully understand some of these things. Maybe not fully, but I understand them enough to express on levels way, way deeper than I was at that time.
There’s a line in “Self Reflection” that was like, ‘Uh. Uh—Dreams are riches and bad bitches get laughed at/ I dream to dream consciously/ Living life as a flashback.” At that time, when I wrote that it was like ooo, woah. That makes sense but I don’t understand it. I don’t even know how it makes sense, but I feel that. That’s real right there. So I stay with it. And now it’s like, you know, I understand what I meant by that but at the time I didn’t. That’s the difference from where I’m at now and where I was at with “Self Reflection.” If I were to break that line down now “I dream to dream consciously/ Living life as a flashback,” it reflects my desire to have a vision of how I want to live before it’s actualized, that vision being lived before I experience it. I wouldn’t have been able to break that down before. I was just like, PFFT.
IC: How do you think Cypher League has fit into that process of maturation? How have they facilitated your growth as an artist, or how have they not?
SF: No they have. If I wasn’t here I’d be somewhere else, I just don’t know where. They’ve been another point of growth in this transition. It’s evolved so naturally. Cypher League has been like another step that appeared as I was walking, just following the vibe and not knowing exactly what’s next. But you step knowing there’s something there and then Cypher League appeared. And then we developed these relationships with people we consider family now. We learned more about ourselves through being forced to live with the people here who, at the time, were new to us. We were forced to create harmonious relationships with people. We were forced to learn more about ourselves, what we preach. We have to practice what we preach and such, affirming to our beliefs that the universe is self-sufficient. Supporting you and supporting anyone in what they do. This just kind of happened, following the continuation. Living here, we have quite a unique situation. We have this building to ourselves, basically, and we don’t pay for anything. And we couldn’t afford to pay for it if we had to. For me, that’s confirmation of the universe being supportive of us following our intentions and following our dreams. With the situation before Cypher League it was Apostrophe where we lived and slept at and ran a music venue slash gallery. Cypher League was just the next step after that got shut down.
IC: Are you still close to Ki and Sei (the owners of the late Apostrophe venue)? What are they doing right now?
SF: They’re building the enxt move, bigger and better. It can’t be the same up-and-coming, underground, what they call, how do they refer to it (addresses Enasni)?
SF: DIY. Do it yourself. Yeah! I like do it together. I like that term more. But it can’t be that anymore, even though it once was. It was necessary as it was, because it provided a platform to grow from just as Cypher League is another platform to grow from. It can’t be like this all the time, either. We have to evolve from this, which we are. This whole location and everything, this is coming to an end as well. There’s also going to be a transition point where Cypher League gets a bigger and better office. Bigger events, bigger things. And we’re going to continue to evolve as well. Who knows what’s next? I don’t know, shit. Cypher League is here with us. They’ve allowed us to see into the business and to see into our philosophy, to see more into humans and people by coming closer and overcoming moments of friction, disagreement, agreement, understanding how to move with people that you share a similar vision with, how to support each other without getting in each other’s way, taking responsibility for your part, allowing other people to play they’re part without being like, you should do this and do that. It’s like well how about I do this and that and they do their thing however that fits in. Let things naturally evolve. These are the kinds of things what this year has been about: the business savvy aspect. The creativity, you can’t really escape that. Everything applies, whether it’s business or love or an argument or whatever. All of that feeds the creativity. That’s Cypher League. That’s the last year I’ve been experiencing and digesting and turning into creative content. And we’re continuing to build the infrastructure and the foundation of the business, just further understanding what it is that we’re expressing, or what we’re trying to express and the expression gets more concentrated to the point where I can just speak to people’s hearts. It’s just like, ppfffffttttt. You know what I’m saying?
IC: In terms of your audience, transitioning from Apostrophe to Cypher League events, have is it stayed the same or have you seen a change of some kind?
SF: It’s expanded but it’s the same vibe. Cypher League, for me—these homies here are building their business. Cypher League is a business. The other creative energy that’s wrapped around it, that’s not just Cypher League, that’s a continuation of Apostrophe. That’s Illuzion. That’s what we were doing before we even met these kids. And now they’ve come here to play the part that they want to play, which is to cover it.
IC: Can you talk about what’s going through your mind as you’re performing? I feel like, even more so than a lot of the artists you perform with at these events, you’re performing with the crowd and within the crowd rather than at the crowd. You’re always in it. Talk about that.
SF: (long pause, heavy scoffing) I just try to let go, man. I clear my head, if anything. To not think, to not see the crowd as a crowd, but it’s just us. This is my part that I’m playing. I’m your voice for the moment. I’m expressing how all of us feel. That’s why all of us are here. You’re expressing how I feel by fucking nodding to this shit. In a song that I just finished writing a couple of days ago, I have this line where it’s like, “This is your choice/ I am your voice/ Singing our song/ Righting your wrongs/ But what’s wrong/ It’s like I’m living for your sins while I’m applying the pen/ A part of me transcends and my expression begins.” That could almost sum up the answer to your question. (Song called “00:01”)
IC: Can you talk about THEiLLUZiON movement? How did you want to align yourself with hip-hop and New York as you started it?
SF: As we started, we were thinking of how we could fit in to this industry that’s full of shit and express truth and still fit in. So we thought iLLUZiON. We play to play. We dance to dance. We dress up. THEiLLUZiON is our character, a part of the dramatics, the play. That’s reflecting the truth and what we’re telling. That’s reflecting the aspects of the industry and the world we live in, how must of it is just a representation. It’s just imagery, it’s not necessarily real. We’re a part of the Illuzion but the Illuzion isn’t necessarily just us. As a collective, yeah that’s how we rep and that’s how we brand ourselves. But as an artistic statement, the purpose of calling ourselves the Illuzion is that we’re representing the games that society plays but the truth that people know deep within. And we’re expressing that truth. One of the basic, first steps of expressing that truth is clarifying the difference between the reality of experience and all the imagery.
IC: When did you play your first live show?
SF: My first show at Apostrophe was with Ratking, but my very first show was way before that. Like 2011 or 2010 with this kid Antwon at this place, it was Synesthesia. That wasn’t the name of the place but it was the name of the party. We got Odd Logic involved. It was good, rough beginnings. Not even rough, it’s just all right, cool. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even mine, it was Antwon’s. We were making music together and he brought me with him, kind of just freestyling.We had like two songs. We didn’t even have a set.
IC: How did you first get linked up with Ratking?
SF: I discovered Wiki online when I was like 16. You know Wiki, the lead MC and shit? I was like, damn. First of all, I was convinced I was the nicest in the city at my age. When I saw him I thought he was nice, maybe even a little better than me. I really wanted to work with this kid. The person who showed me [Wiki] knew him but wasn’t friends with him, so he couldn’t make the link. I was just a fan in the digital distance. Two years later, when I was 18, I was chilling with Antwon who actually knew Patrick. We were in Washington Square Park one time, yeah, and he was like, yo Pat! He came over to say what’s up, and I looked over at this kid like, (slams hand down on metal grating) “YO WIKI!!! Could we just have a cypher right now, man? You’re so good.” I just starting praising this kid because I was a legit fan, and I was waiting to run into this kid. He just kind of brushed it off like, oh thanks. And he dipped. I found him on his Facebook after that and sent him “Self-Reflection.” After that, it was just a mutual respect from MC to MC and then we linked.
We went to his house a week or two later, that spot on 145th or something and Broadway. We met Wiki and Hak and Eric, and I realized Hak was this kid that I went to afterschool programs with back in the third grade and shit. We had, even still, one of the dopest cyphers we’ve ever had to this day. That moment was epic for real, man. I don’t know if I have another moent to compare to that. I don’t know, heavy. And from there, we’ve been continuing to build ever-gradually and slow. They just came out with an album and I featured on it.
IC: Can you talk about how that song came together, and what kinds of creative vibes were flowing in the studio?
SF: They were working on their album, and they were like, “Yo, Sal you gotta be on it.” They already this idea of a song they wanted me on and I went to their rehearsal studio one day. They showed me and I was like, word, what else is on your album. They wanted me to sing and shit. I don’t have a problem with that, and I was down but that is not what I wanted to do. I was not feeling that one as much. So they said I could get on “Take.” I go along writing my verse and all that a couple of days after. One day I ask to come through for their studio session because I’m not sure with what I have and everything. I get there and spit them what I had. What I had was mad laid back. Eric was like, that shit is cool but I want you to come harder, I feel like your part should be mad hype. So I’m like, all right, I’ll take that into consideration. They were working on other music but I put on some headphones and while they’re doing their thing I’m looking around and naturally vibing off their energy. I’m just here to feed off the vibes and play my part in expressing the tension of their album. For me, it’s like, I’m a feature. I’m not really here to represent myself. I’m here in the name of Ratking. I’ve got to make sure that my expression is in line with their expression for the album.
I asked them to explain to me the concept of the album, as well, and they told me it’s about giving the listeners a meal of hip-hop that has substance because they’ve been given shit that lacks nutrition and shit. That’s why they’ve got songs like “Protein” and such like that. That’s the general philosophy of their expression in a way. I took that and was like, okay. Okay. After I got that first little line, that, “Thank you for you/ You beautiful fools/ Losing your cool but it’s cool,” I was like, oh, we got a whole new direction.
And then I was ready, and I don’t even like to record shit before I have it memorized but the energy was so there, it just had to happen. And Ratking is super raw, so I knew the sound of me not enunciating the words to the cookie cutter “T,” I knew that would work. I spit that shit. Motherfuckers was like, (makes a sound like a helium balloon releasing its last bits of air). They fucked with it. DJ Dog Dick was in there. He’s the one who makes all the weird, drilling noises and sounds, some of that shit he did right on the spot. That’s how that came about.
IC: What’re you working on right now?
SF: I’m working on two albums right now. I’m working on my solo project and Evolution, that’s my collaboration project with one of the many members of THEiLLUZON, Enasni Leber. These things are planned to come out sequentially throughout the summer. June-ish would be the first drop of one of them. Those two albums are the focus right now. And we’re curating some gallery events. We’re trying to move a lot of the things we’re doing—not necessarily move it but expand it—from Brooklyn to Manhattan and into Harlem and continue to keep growing. I feel like Brooklyn is where we learned to lead and learned how to bring people together. We really developed ourselves here. Now we could go back to Harlem or Manhattan where we started as city boys and really be effective. In the city, the energy is a bit more cold. Niggas is more arrogant, which is cool, because I see through that, but being able to see through that took living in Brooklyn for a while. To understand myself better, relationships and people better. To understand what it means to be a community, and how to bring people together. How to see through people’s egos and speak directly to that and not entertain the bullshit that might be layered over it.
IC: Can you break down what a cypher is in layman’s terms?
A cypher? Like when niggas is just spitting? All right, cool. First of all, it’s a balance of written and freestyle with hopefully a couple of MCs with dope beats and all that. But I’m going to speak to the divine essence of the cypher, even though everything in life is divine. One of the things that I find with cyphers is the freestyling aspect, I don’t feel like it takes away form the writing aspect. I really don’t like how people come and try to degrade people that come to cyphers with writtens, like that shit is not valid. Because what are you doing? You’re not even in the cypher, so shut up. Expression is expression. I could spit a written or I could freestlyle. It’s all about feeling the vibe and that natural inspiration, and not being scared to jump in the vibe when you feel that intuitive nudge. And if you do hesitate a little bit then it reflects.
My favorite aspect of the cypher is when you channel a free vibe where you might skip and jump from a freestyle or whatever, but when you channel this vibe of inspiration you egt to a point where you’re just going and you’re not even thinking about it. It’s almost like you’re watching yourself go, witnessing this expression come outside of you, and seeing its effect on the people around you and the audience around you. You surprise yourself sometimes. But it’s a matter of just going. It’s the freedom of expression: people being allowed to be whack, to be nice, to spit a freestyle, all these different, unique things setting that contrast. I like the aggressive nature of it, too. I like losing myself and maybe coming at somebody on some rap shit. That’s why sometimes I like to be around people that I’m not so cool with, so I can fucking hurt your feelings or some shit. And if you’re whack maybe I can help you out. It’s not personal. It’s just rap. And it’s all love at the end of the day. You see things happen. You see people coming outside of themselves. It could be somebody you don’t even know and you’ve got an ounce of respect for them, especially these days because a lot of niggas are whack these days. Especially after Pro Era and A$AP and all that, because everybody thinks, oh we can get rich like this. Other people just love it and just do it and then they make it.
IC: Who do you consider to be your biggest musical influences right now, people that inspire you to write?
SF: That’s always a tough question.
IC: What’s the last great album you heard, besides Ratking?
SF: My favorite album of last year was Yeezus. Yeezus was my favorite album. Yeezus was my favorite album because it hit me the hardest out of all the albums that came out that year. Not just the album but the whole lead up and shit. That shit really made me reconsider everything I was doing. I’ve got to be a lot more musical. I don’t just want to be rapping. Do I think it was the best album of last year? Not necessarily. But that was my favorite. Kanye inspires me creatively but eh doesn’t inspire me to pick up a pen. Drake might. Drake does. He influences me and inspires me as well. Other than that it’s Bob Marley, Lauryn Hill, James Blake, things like that. I’m not even listening to those people consistently right now, I just know that during my path coming up these people have been major points of inspiration.
Photos by Angel E. Fraden